Book Review: Brilliant Imperfection (Eli Clare)

Reviewed by Travis Lau

Since the publication of his groundbreaking book, Exile and Pride (1999), Eli Clare has modeled a form of disability scholarship that intertwines the personal and the theoretical. His newest work, Brilliant Imperfection, draws together lyrical poetry, personal anecdote, disability theory, and historical narrative to interrogate the notion of cure in Western culture. For Clare, "Brilliant imperfection" is a methodology and way of being:

As a way of knowing, understanding, and living with disability and chronic illness, brilliant imperfection is rooted in the nonnegotiable value of body-mind difference. It resists the pressures of normal and abnormal. It defies the easy splitting of natural from unnatural. It has emerged from collective understandings and stubborn survivals. It is expressed in different ways by different communities. (xvii)

"Brilliant Imperfection" allows Clare to grapple with the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions of both desiring and resisting cure. As opposed to trying to forcibly argue for either side, he suspends judgment to instead inhabit the uncomfortable implications and questions raised by both pro- and anti-cure politics. Such inhabitation, Clare insists, cannot be separated from the lived experiences of disabled people who negotiate these positions every day. For the disabled community, theory cannot be useful without praxis.

Disability studies has long been critical of and resistant to the curative impulses of the medical model, which seeks to frame disability as a flaw, problem, or lack. Clare contributes to this ongoing discussion by "grappling" with cure "as an ideology seeped into every corner of white Western thought and culture" (14). Identifying the "normal" and "natural" as conceptual crutches for the ideology of cure, Clare argues for how cure depends on a perversely nostalgic desire to restore an "original state of being" "connected to loss and yearning (15, 57). This impulse toward a temporal return to an originary moment is often a compelling one for disabled people, many of whom do desire a "time before pain and multigenerational trauma," but as Clare suggests, it is still enmeshed within a framework of the natural and the normal (57). Coupled with Western medicine’s diagnostic gaze, which shores up normalcy by scrutinizing certain body-minds marked out as different, the ideology of cure claims to "know" (and effectively contain) disability. While on one level offering narratives for disabled people to know their experience of bodily difference, Clare notes that diagnosis "is often dangerous, sometimes useful, but never neutral, never merely descriptive" (42). The medical-industrial complex’s representation of itself as impartial, objective, and empiricist masks its curative ideological agenda. With its narrative of "diagnosis, treatment, management, rehabilitation, and prevention," cure is quite adaptable (71).

In the section, "Nuances of Cure", Clare ends a section with a powerful question:" "how do we witness, name, and resist the injustices that reshape and damage all kinds of body-minds—plant and animal, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human—while not equating disability with injustice?" (56). Brilliant Imperfection’s most provocative contribution to disability studies is its engagement with ecocritical and environmental justice approaches. Disability studies has often been criticized for its identity politics, as well as its anthropocentrism. Alongside the human figures that Clare explores throughout the monograph, Brilliant Imperfection takes seriously non-human figures like shells, beaches, fields, and lakes and their relationship to human exploitation and abuse. In an anecdote about Warm Springs, Georgia, Clare considers how the space of the hot spring has long been used to sell curative regimens like water therapy. Often forgotten is the legacy of American settler colonialism, which displaced Native Americans who used these waters for their own traditional systems of healing and depended on the labor of African American bodies. Like Exile and Pride, Brilliant Imperfection is powerfully intersectional in its approach to body-mind difference: disability, as an identity, process, and means of interacting with the world, cannot be disentangled from other facets of identity like race, sexuality, class, and gender.

Section 7 features the history of Carrie Buck and her mother, Emma, at the State Colony of Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg. In his slow reconstruction of her experience, Clare finds a unique kinship with her given his own history with institutionalization: "I want a history that leans into Carrie’s voice" (107). In this section, Clare brings us into the messy space of the archive, where "case files will never provide the answers. Instead they tell stories entirely distorted, filtered through diagnosis, treatment, and cure; stories that flatten body-minds onto paper and computer screens, reduced to fit into vaults and servers. They lay claim to the truth. They lie (115)." Like Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History and Arlette Farge’s Le goût de l'archive, Brilliant Imperfection thinks about the limits and possibilities of historiography. If lives are too often reduced to case files, how do we write a substantive account of disabled life that exceeds such reduction to "diagnoses and ‘expert opinions’"? (112). As he does with the ideology of cure, Clare inhabits the deeply unsettling and uncomfortable ethical situation of the historical archive of disabled people whose suffering and resilience continue to resonate into the present.

What are we to do then with the pervasive ideology of cure and its "maze of contradictions"(183)? "I am suggesting a rebellion,"(142) he even proclaims toward the end of his book. Yet true to his method of "Brilliant imperfection," he ultimately does not offer as definitive means by which we are to counter or dismantle cure’s hold on Western culture. Yet he concludes the volume with an inset poem, "Cycling." Instead of the rigid discourses surrounding the natural and the normal, there is instead the image of "just the two of us moving slowly and steadily, defying gravity" (190). In place of stasis, there is pleasurable motion. While we might often feel that the curative is inescapable, Clare reminds us that disability resilience, "adaptation" and flourishing abound. Disability has always already exceeded cure.

Title: Brilliant Imperfection
Author: Eli Clare
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication Date: 2017


Travis Lau is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Department of English. He is also the Ideas editor for The Deaf Poets Society and a reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly. Lau’s academic writing has been published in Journal of Homosexuality, Romantic Circles, English Language Notes, and Digital Defoe. His creative writing has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Wordgathering, Assaracus, Rogue Agent, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology. []